Trumped up narratives
From The New Criterion.
October 31, 2015.
You will already have heard of the quartet of heroes, three American and one British, who, traveling on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, tackled and disarmed an Islamicist terrorist wielding an AK-47 and other weapons, thus saving many lives beside their own. The three Americans, all from California, were childhood friends traveling together. Two of the three, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlotos were military men, one Air Force, the other National Guard, traveling in mufti, although the first reports identified them as Marines; the third, Anthony Sadler, was a college student. All three, together with the Briton, Chris Norman, received the French Légion d’honneur from François Hollande personally. "Your heroism must be an example for many and a source of inspiration," said the French president. "Faced with the evil of terrorism, there is a good, that of humanity. You are the incarnation of that."
The story, you might have supposed, wrote itself. But that was just the problem to some in the media, jealous of their prerogative to write such things up and make them conform to a larger narrative of their own. You could see this jealousy at work in a curious little piece by Geoff Dyer in The Guardian a week after the events of the chemin de fer. It was headed: "Gung-ho Americans, steady Brits, and a lack of French resistance — but was the story of the terror train really so clear?" The headline was a bit of a tease, since Mr Dyer did not have any new information about the attack or its prevention that might have cast doubt on the story’s paradigmatic or stereotypical elements that he wished to call attention to. Rather, he inserted himself and his keen critical faculties between the facts as they eventually emerged and the confused first reports of it in order to trace the formation of a new "narrative" which, perhaps not so remarkably, would not only allow himself and his modern-day belletrist style to have their own stake in it but also conformed perfectly to an existing narrative of national characteristics of the three nations as they emerged from the Second World War.
While the role of the two Frenchmen who also tried to intervene but with less success was played down, even by the French — and the life of one of them, shot in the neck, was saved by Airman Stone after the gunman had been tied up — the three American heroes, wrote Mr Dyer, made a better story partly because "the trio comprised two whites and one African American, an alliance that symbolically — if all too briefly — healed the wounds of a body politic racked by racial conflict." You may have read about the racial conflict in The Guardian as well. The deeds of the Americans, he wrote, also conformed to
the US tradition of can-do pragmatism and it was a safe bet that of all the passengers aboard, Spencer and his crew were the least likely to take this lying down. The key thing is the absence of any tendency to complain that "they" (the council, the state) have or have not done something. The downside of this commendable outlook is that it is used to underwrite the ideology of the free market whereby everyone, however powerless or disadvantaged, is left to fend for themselves.
This emergent narrative managed to reinforce the media culture’s dislike not only of "the ideology of the free market" but also of former President George W. Bush and the Iraq war, since the reported "Let’s go" of one of the men that had launched their intervention sounded to Mr Dyer like Todd Beamer’s "Let’s roll" on the doomed United flight 93 of September 11th, 2001. "Either way," he wrote, "Spencer and his buddies went. No UN resolutions were required for an invasion — sorry, I mean intervention — where evidence of weapons of considerable destruction was plain for all to see."
Now isn’t that just the kind of snide, facile irony at America’s expense that we have come expect from such over-educated Brits? Stereotypes are everywhere, I guess, when you know where to look for them — as Mr Dyer himself reminds us. The three Americans, he continued, had "rushed the terrorist, disarmed him and, as Sandler explained with a marvelous lack of rhetoric, ‘beat him until he was unconscious’." That "marvelous lack of rhetoric," you will not be surprised to learn, also made a neat stereotypical contrast with the more polished public presence of the lone Brit since, as his fellow Briton noted, "whereas the young Americans stuck to their we-just-beat-the-crap-outta-him version, Chris [Norman] articulated his and their role with an eloquence and relish that was, by comparison, Churchillian."
Indeed, Churchill himself now exists primarily as a stereotype, at least according to this media arbiter, for in passing he noted that
"Newsnight" [on BBC television] had recently invited Richard Overy and Juliet Nicolson to discuss the myth of the Battle of Britain. Yes, it was our finest hour but we had an understandable tendency to overstate its importance in the overall scheme of the second world war. Wasn’t there a touch of that here? Credited with helping to "overpower the gunman", Chris’s role seems to have involved helping to tie up the prisoner after the Americans had settled his hash. Well, they also serve. And, as Nicolson emphasised, myth does not mean "falsehood"; the variations, elaborations and contradictions add up to a needed truth of their own.
Mr Dyer himself, of course, was the one providing the "needed truth" by pointing to the mythic elements in his now very personal "narrative." By carefully stipulating that their mythic quality didn’t make them false, he suggested that they were not entirely true either, or not true in the sense understood by the naive reader — the reader as yet unaware of his need for such finely-tuned but critical mediation between himself and events. Mr Dyer’s own intervention into this amusingly hackneyed story is thus meant to become for the reader a matter of more moment than the American heroes’ playing out their by-now much too-familiar parts in the terrorist drama on the rails. The critic is the real hero, as he always is in our postmodernist culture — not least, perhaps, because he is so seldom the one getting the Légion d’honneur.
You have to have, as "Geoff" Dyer does, the knack for such delicate expropriation of other people’s works and words, I suppose, developed through some fifteen books on various and disparate subjects, in order to assert your critical claims so elegantly. But the po-mo media are continually making similar and cruder interventions between us and history as a reminder of the extent to which they expect to be in command of the events that they once were thought to be in the business only of reporting. Political success in our time has increasingly gone to those who have contrived to be on the right side — not of "history," as they would have it, but of this, the media’s pre-written historical plot. It’s not as if they have hidden their arrogance from us. By calling themselves and those they favor politically "progressives," they advertise their supposed foreknowledge of the historical narrative, which can therefore be expected to stay obediently within its media-prescribed boundaries.
It seems to me that that which goes under the name of "political correctness" is a big part of this hostile takeover of history for frankly political purposes. Although it is overlaid with a heavy-handed moralism, censure of the politically incorrect is at bottom a mere insistence on keeping up with the times by those who imagine that their progressive ideology puts them in charge of the times and therefore of what the times demand of everyone with a hope of staying in the times’ good graces. When people talk or write of the "anger" more manifest than ever before among the electorate in the summer of Trump, what they’re really referring to is not the sort of anger that, among those with nothing left to lose, expresses itself in revolutionary action, but rather something more like despair — the despair of those who feel themselves left behind by this sort of foreordained "progress" against which, like the Supreme Court, there can be no appeal.
Some such feeling as that must surely be what lay behind the cheer Mr Trump elicited from the crowd in Cleveland, perhaps his biggest of the night, at the first Republican debate in August. It came not in response to anything he said about immigration or foreign policy or even about himself and his own brilliance but when he answered Megyn Kelly’s invitation to self-abasement for past sins of a "sexist" nature by announcing himself as the people’s champion against political correctness. I suspect it is also why there were so many watching the debate in the first place, no doubt expecting something of the sort, and why the constant drumbeat of criticism of Mr Trump in the media before and after it only seemed to increase his support. People didn’t care about what he was saying nearly so much as they cared about his daring to say what the self-appointed masters of the historical narrative in our time had insisted, and continued to insist, must not be said.
I am not the first to notice that the media’s engagement with Donald Trump (there is, of course, no longer even the pretense of any objectivity about it) has had next to nothing to do with the policies he proposes and everything to do with the personality he projects — and, as perhaps the media are beginning to understand, quite deliberately projects. As Tim Black wrote at Spiked Online
This is politics as culture war, a campaign waged by virtue-signaling, sin-seeking politicos. So, as Trump steams ahead of his rivals in the race for the Republican nomination . . . opponents beyond the GOP have attempted to label-and-shame him out of existence. He’s a bigot, we’re told. And a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe. Whatever progress is, Trump is on the wrong side of it. He is the walking, talking, combed-over embodiment of the wrong sort of person, the sort of person with the sort of attitudes who shouldn’t be allowed to speak so loudly and so frequently in public.
All true, of course, but Mr Black does not, then, go on to ask himself why Mr Trump appears to be inviting such treatment rather than seeking to avoid it. It must be because he recognizes that there is (or might be) a "silent majority" — and could there be a more deliberate act of defiance of the media consensus on his part than this resurrection of an old Nixonian slogan? — who feel a wonderful sense of liberation from media constraints themselves at seeing him so successfully flout them. Tim Black is again right when he notes that
this personalised form of politics, this culture war against those with unspeakable attitudes, impoverishes political debate. It suggests that only the right sort of people ought to be allowed to participate, those, that is, who have passed the cultural litmus test, those who support gay marriage, who profess their feminism, who pity migrants’ plight. And in doing so, it not only narrows debate, it spurs on those excluded, those who fail the litmus test, to embrace outrage. The Donald, then, is as much a product of the stifling climate of political conformity as he is its brash opponent.
The media, Mr Black appears to think, could show "The Donald" up for what he is if only they would drop their insistence on judging him according to the canons of political correctness and instead concentrate on the substance of his policies. But they can’t do that because they don’t really care about the policies. As Marc Thiessen pointed out in The Washington Post, the Trump proposal for dealing with illegal immigrants had been endorsed by The New York Times editorial page in 2007. But now all that the Times or anyone else in the media seemed to care about were the disobliging things he had said about (some) Mexican immigrants. For them the canons of political correctness are the substance, which is why candidate Trump goes out of his way to offend them. He knows he is appealing to "those excluded" and that they have already embraced outrage. Outrage, either on behalf of or in opposition to political correctness is simply the political currency of our time, and Donald Trump’s recognition of the fact is what has made him the GOP front-runner at the time of writing.
It’s not the only way, either, in which, as I pointed out last month in this space (see "Sixteen no-Trump" in The New Criterion of September, 2015), he is the mirror image of President Obama, chief spokesman in our time (by the media’s grace) for the PC consensus. I have been particularly struck by the emphasis he has laid on being "smart" — or smarter than his non-billionaire opposition. This, you may remember, was also the line that Mr Obama took when he was first elected in 2008 — aided, of course, by eight years of the media drumbeat about the stupidity of his predecessor (see "Root-causeism" and electability" in The New Criterion of April, 2004). In what often appeared to be a public performance of a campaign — like, as one leftie columnist for The New Republic put it, a professional wrestling match in which Mr Trump had volunteered himself to play the "heel" — his own superior intelligence was the one thing he seemed really and sincerely to believe in. It also sometimes seemed to be the one thing that his myriad enemies in the media were most afraid might actually be true of him.
Rush Limbaugh was one of the few in the media to understand this about the Trump phenomenon — namely that it has had so far almost nothing to do with conventional definitions of liberal and conservative or with political substance at all. Which is why those who think it a killer riposte that the candidate is not a real conservative, or in fact a liberal, are so wrong-headed and have had no success so far in stripping him of his popularity. He doesn’t claim to be a conservative. Or a liberal. He only claims to speak on behalf of those whom the progressives have sought to shut out of decent society, which encompasses a much larger universe than that of the movement conservatives trying to ensure that the nominee is, unlike every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan, one of their own. The important question is, are the conservatives prepared to settle for this? My suspicion is that an awful lot of them are, or will be in time. And, if they are, will the media’s line of attack against him as a defier of the media’s own rules of conduct for politicians be more successful with the public at large than it has been so far with the GOP primary electorate? Not being a progressive myself, I am unable to predict the answer.